Archive | February, 2015

Black History Month 2015: The Staple Singers

13 Feb

TheSlowDrag-TheStapleSingersToday we honor and celebrate a talented family whose distinctive approach to “Message Music” helped form the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America. The Staple Singers comprised father, singer, and guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his daughters, lead vocalist Mavis Staples and vocalist Cleotha Staples, with siblings Pervis and Yvonne joining as vocalists off and on through the years. Blending southern blues, traditional gospel, early rock era R&B, and protest folk, their powerful harmonies drove a message of tolerance, diversity, strength, and progress.

Roebuck Staples was born the youngest son of sharecroppers in Mississippi. He learned to play guitar listening to the blues greats in the region and played in a few joints in his youth. In the early 30s he moved to Chicago to seek out a better life for his family, gradually moving them all north. His interest in music continued moving into gospel singing. Soon the whole family was joining in. Their unique, instinctive harmonies, supported by Pops’ eerie, tremolo-drenched guitar work, gave them a sound that stood out even in Chicago’s talented gospel community.

The original core quartet (all but Yvonne) began playing gigs at a number of local churches and eventually landed a recording contract. For a while Pops continued to work a regular job, but as the Staple Singers began to tour he eventually committed to music full time. The group found themselves in an interesting musical position. Pops wanted to avoid pop love songs and dark blues themes, focusing on joy, hope, and inspiration. Unlike other Gospel acts, they incorporated some original material and a variety of songs that  fit their message. Unlike acts like local friend Sam Cooke, who fully embraced pop and soul and made successful career transitions, their adherence to their own vision kept their audience somewhat small.

Touring mostly the south in the 1950s was a tricky business for an African-American family. They had difficulty finding food and lodging in many places, relying heavily on an unofficial network of homes and boardinghouses that supported the Gospel community. Driving a large Cadillac through the rural south brought them plenty of grief from local law enforcement including a brief stint in jail because of the significant amount of money — their legitimate wages — found in the trunk of their car. These experiences honed their desire to empower the black community and to provide messages of hope and strength.

They became enmeshed in the growing civil rights movement, often performing in locations where black activists were speaking. Their Message Music merged perfectly with the push for equality and their personal experiences informed performances that were as passionate as the preachers’ and activists’ speeches. Pops became close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Staples often adjusted their touring schedule to accompany his appearances.

While becoming a critical part of the movement, they began breaking down musical barriers as well. Already deeply connected to the soul and R&B communities — they were friends with singers Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin and many others as well as their families — their sound began expanding. They performed at the Newport Folk Festival, launching a long career of participating in folk events. They befriended Bob Dylan and the Band and their music informed the Rolling Stones’ early hit The Last Time. Pops’ guitar work was so famous that producer Jerry Wexler insisted that Joe South emulate it for his great guitar intro to Aretha Franklin’s smash Chain of Fools.

The Staples were famous and successful but limited in audience. Labels weren’t sure how to promote them — not just gospel but not fully folk, pop, or soul. They finally found their breakthrough, signing with Stax and recording at the famous Muscle Shoals studio. The blend of their Message Music with the earthy sound of the Shoals musicians — a bunch of young white men inspired by the rich musical culture around them — and caught fire. They began a string of hits that included the classic Respect Yourself and their signature song, the #1 pop and R&B hit I’ll Take You There. For awhile the Staple Singers were musical royalty, staying true to their Message Music and pushing for continued progress in civil rights.

By the late 70s, changing musical tastes and a long career of  performing resulted in a gradual reduction in Staples’ material. Pops was in his 60s and Mavis became interested in a solo career. They re-emerged in the 90s, with musicians like Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt championing their pivotal roles in music and activism. Pops recorded two acclaimed solo albums, winning a Grammy award in his 80s. He died in 2000 at the age of 85.

Mavis continues to record and perform today. She has grown comfortable with her role as a musical elder with an important message. Given the horrible racism that has surfaced in recent years, she wonders what happened to all the work the Staples and their contemporaries did. Activism is as important now as then, she observes.

It makes me think of my father’s song Why Am I Treated So Bad? I’m sixtey-seven years old and I was here the first time around and now I’m still here and it’s still not fixed. I’m here to let you all know that I’m still not pleased. … It’s the 21st Century. We should be ashamed of ourselves. We don’t teach enough black history in the schools. But I’m the history — I’ll be the history. The kids need to know.

Fifty years into an impressive career, the Staples family still has something to say. And it certainly still matters.

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Black History Month 2015: Wendell Scott

9 Feb

WendellScottToday I would like to honor and pay tribute to Wendell Scott. Scott was the first full-tim African American race car driver in NASCAR and remained the only black race car driver for most of his career. No shock that Scott met with racial prejudice and problems with top-level NASCAR officials. Here are just two examples of the uphill battle of racism Scott would have to fight:

The next day, however, brought the first of many episodes of discrimination that would plague his racing career. Scott repaired his car and towed it to a NASCAR-sanctioned race in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But the NASCAR officials refused to let him compete. Black drivers were not allowed, they said. As he drove home, Scott recalled, “I had tears in my eyes.” A few days later he went to another NASCAR event in High Point, North Carolina. Again, Scott said, the officials “just flat told me I couldn’t race.”

Scott’s determination and internal fortitude finally won out and earned him the historic position of being the first black man to be a NASCAR driver. With nearly 500 premiere league starts, he ranks in the Top 40 drivers of all time. Bravo, to Scott’s courage and strength. NASCAR remains today, 2015 a very white and very heteronormative institution.  If you are Black, or Queer, NASCAR is not a likely place one feels safe.

Fortunately, NASCAR has finally seen fit to celebrate this talented pioneer. Last week, Scott was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, its first African-American honoree. Accepting the award on his late father’s behalf, his son Franklin observed

The legacy of Wendell Scott depicts him as one of the great vanguards of the sport of NASCAR racing. Daddy was a man of great honor. He didn’t let his circumstances define who he was.

Thank you to my brother-in-law Scott for helping to inspire this story and pointing me to Wendell Scott.

Black History Month 2015: Difficult Reflections

1 Feb

Black History MonthThis is now the fifth year that Social Justice For All (SJFA) has celebrated Black History Month. The past year has proven unequivocally why we still need Black History Month. I can only hope all of us in the United States are doing some reflection around our own racism and encouraging conversations around issues of racial disparities and systems of inequities and oppression. I also hope as we have these courageous conversations we have a better understanding of what racism is.

In the wake of Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and all of the other cities where black voices are being silenced, we have an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations around race and racism.  I suspect many of us are still feeling the sting of the Supreme Court’s decision to dismantle the Voting Rights Act; continuing their racist agenda, they then upheld voter suppression in Texas.

Equity and Equality are still just a dream when 13% of the people in our country identify as African American (we know this percentage is not accurate because of the many barriers that prevent some African Americans from filling out the census) and far fewer than this are represented in most walks of life. Sadly, the places where African Americans are over-represented include poverty, dropout rates, and incarceration, further evidence that institutionalized oppression still plays a major role in how things work in America. In states like Alabama, blacks that are or were incarcerated lose their right to vote for the rest of their lives – so much for the 14th Amendment.

I would love to see a point in history when we don’t need Black History, Women’s History, or LGBT History Months. I don’t see that happening until we have a level playing field, which would require eradicating racism, misogyny, and homophobia. This also requires that we see accurate representation in history books of Blacks, Women, and LGBT folk. I can only hope that all of these targeted populations can find ways to build community and work together around issues of equity and equality.

Let’s kick off Black History Month in this historic year with an eye to so many wonderful accomplishments. Let inspiration drive hope to fuel more success and let each of us step back and reflect where we might be implicated in colluding with systems of oppression and racism.

 

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